Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pershore, Worcestershire


Two ways with brick

‘What can that be?’ asks the Resident Wise Woman, pointing across the square at a couple of buildings that stick out, more than somewhat, from Pershore’s Georgian townscape.
‘Something civic?’ I say.
‘Or something educational?’ she responds.
Something religious, we suppose, as we approach and discover the place to be festooned with posters issued by the Baptists. It’s actually something educational and religious: a Baptist schoolroom.

Hidden behind this building, it turns out, is Pershore’s Baptist chapel, a structure of 1839–40 by S. W. Daukes. Here in front are two newcomers in brick. To the right, the 1860s polychrome brickwork of the manse and earlier schoolroom, as jazzy and different from Pershore’s prevailing sober Georgian red brick as you could get using nominally the same material. To the left, the freer Tudor-cum-Gothic schoolroom of 1888, with shields bearing appropriate virtues to which pupils might aspire (faith, hope, charity, peace) and big windows to admit light by which the Word might be read. The architects were Ingall and Son, and they did a better job, it seems to me, than whoever designed the jazzy manse. I especially like the line of the gable and the way its pointed protrusions reflect the shape of the dripstone over the window. The lower part of the facade is perhaps a bit busy and unbalanced, but if it's busy it's also businesslike.

And if both buildings stick out rather, in this civil Georgian town, the schoolroom, at least, does it with some style. Is it so bad, after all, to proclaim your differences and to announce values such as charity and peace? ’Tis the season for it.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Being moved in London


Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London
Reprint, published by Penguin Books


The final book review in my pre-Christmas handful is rather different from the others. It’s not of a recent book, but a reprint, not of a new discovery, but an old favourite. This review, in fact, returns to a subject that has occupied the English Buildings blog before: the writing of architectural critic, topographer, and television presenter Ian Nairn…

Right. I’m going to suggest that you do something rather extraordinary. I am gong to suggest that you buy a guidebook that’s nearly 50 years out of date. More than that, I’m going to recommend that you read it. And more even than that, I’m going to encourage you to start at the beginning, with the insular City of London, and read to the end, with the book’s evocation of the bare landscape around what was in 1966 still called London Airport. Nairn’s London is that different and that good.

Ian Nairn prefaced his guide by saying, ‘This book is a record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham.’ His descriptions of London buildings and London scenes benefit from much architectural knowledge (Nairn can evoke Sangallo and Bramante as he contemplates the Banqueting House in Whitehall; he knows when to compare something to Le Corbusier). He knows some history, but doesn’t dwell on it. What counts is his personal responses – the way he is moved – and what he has to say about the visual and spatial impact of buildings and places.

And when he is moved, Nairn’s language really takes off. In St Mary Woolnoth space is so tangible that ‘you can experience, for the price of a bus ticket to the City, the super-reality of the mystics or mescalin’. The improvisatory interior of St Mary Abchurch ‘looks like the result of a scribble on a menu card, and it works perfectly’. All Saints’ Margaret Street is like an orgasm. St Mary, Ealing, is ‘A rag-bag with enough ideas for a dozen churches: and a splendid place for a boggle.’ It’s not all churches, though, and certainly not all landmark buildings. Nairn is just as happy with obscure corners such as the wonderful Goodwin’s Court off St Martin’s Lane, its Georgian bow windows ’as unexpected as anything in London’, and Lazenby Court, which begins like ‘the end of the world’, continues via ‘an evil stretch of dark brick’, and ends with ‘a more than comforting pub’.

Pubs there are a-plenty in Nairn’s London. Critics are fond of saying that the book includes 27 of them, a figure reached by counting the entries in the thematic index. Actually there are more, because pubs mentioned en passant, like the one in the entry on Lazenby Court (the Lamb and Flag), aren’t listed there. The 27 range from the Red Lion in Duke of York Street, which, thanks in part to its mirror-lined interior, ‘throws you back on your own resources’, to Hampstead’s The Spaniards, which Nairn likes because it is unlike other Hampstead pubs which are ‘like a private society whose performance is not worth the entrance fee  – the intellectual equivalent of the Soho striptease club’.

Pubs did for Nairn in the end, which came too soon when he died of the effects of too much alcohol, in his fifties. There are signs of a decline in his late work, but Nairn’s London doesn’t show this, unless one finds his writing itself intoxicating. The comparisons can be far out, but they’re revealing nonetheless. Often they compare architecture to the other arts. Nash, he was fond of saying, is like Offenbach. The greenhouse at Syon House is a Schubertian frolic. Pubs remind him of Manet or Seurat.

I could go on, quoting his entries for such outré places as the Agapemonite Church in Clapton, Eros House in Catford, Huck’s Chalet in Hampton, or Lululand in Bushey. But even if you don’t know this extraordinary book, you probably have the idea by now. They are very personal responses but not so idiosyncratic that they’re not deeply revealing. They’re open-minded responses too. They celebrate grimy buildings as well as pristine ones, the famous and the obscure, the public and the private, Hawksmoor and Butterfield, modern and antique. And although our likes may not be quite the same as Nairn’s the writing makes us want to get out and see what is being described.

The blurb on the original edition tells us to get out quickly, as some of its subjects were already disappearing in 1966. By now, almost half a century on, quite a bit of Nairn’s London has been demolished, although the book is still worth reading as a guide to what’s left. But more than this, the lost buildings and vanished, scarred streets live on through Nairn’s animating prose.

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To be clear: Penguin have reprinted the first edition of Nairn’s London without changes or revisions, as the classic that it is. (There was, a few decades ago, another edition, with revisions by Peter Gasson which are not included here.) For old time’s sake, my picture shows the cover of the first edition, which has been reproduced for the reprint, but with glowing review quotes replacing the destinations in the white panels on the bus. That’s Nairn himself, at the wheel.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On track


Steven Parissien, The English Railway Station
Published by English Heritage


The railway station does not appear prominently in most general histories of architecture. There will be the obligatory reference to the great Victorian train sheds – the cathedrals of steam – and their groundbreaking iron and glass roofs, and a nod in the direction of Charles Holden’s fine London Underground stations, but not much more. Even so, the widespread interest in railway history has produced a ready market for books on railway architecture and on stations in particular, and even I, no steam man, have a shelf of them. Quite a few are reference books that I return to regularly – Gordon Biddle and O. S. Nock’s The Railway Heritage of Britain and Biddle’s Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings, for example. There are wide-ranging works of social history, such as Richards and Mackenzie’s The Railway Station, works of narrower range like John Betjeman’s London’s Historic Railway Stations (with its lovely photographs by John Gay) and Gordon Biddle’s Victorian Stations, a clutch of books about the architecture of London’s Underground, and international surveys such as Carroll Meeks’s The Railroad Station and Steven Parissien’s Station to Station. It’s Steven Parissien who’s written this new book, The English Railway Station. I wondered when I saw it whether we needed another, but perhaps we do.

Parissien casts his net wide across England, covering not just the big termini but also town stations, rural stations, and halts. He covers not just the historic Victorian buildings but the railway stations of the 20th  and 21st centuries (yes, there are a few). Beginning with the origins of the British railways, he shows how the industry, beset by insecurity and financial scandal, had to build up the trust of the public – classical architecture, with its sense of solidity, lineage, and rectitude, helped at first; a Tudor revival style, sometimes homely, sometimes amusing, sometimes reassuringly redolent of old England, went down better later. Other styles were taken on board to express the corporate identities of specific railway companies or the talents of particular architects.

The careers of certain of those architects are highlighted – not just well known heroes such as Brunel and Hardwicke, but also notables like John Dobson (creator of the stunning Newcastle Central), David Mocatta (imposing Brighton), Sancton Wood (Tudor Stamford), George Townsend Andrews (monastic Gothic Richmond, Yorks), and several others. A succession of steep-gabled, Jacobethan, and brick-built structures illustrates an extended chapter on the country station. Still more variety, from Slough’s French Renaissance curves to the wonderful moderne radio cabinet of a station building at Surbiton, punctuates a chapter on the urban station.

Having brought the story up to World War II (via a short detour on to the Underground), there is the expected account of the decline of the country’s rail network, in which Parissien reminds us that Dr Beeching was not the only person to blame – lines and stations were closing in significant numbers well before Beeching’s destructive 1963 report led to still more shrinkage. The contraction carried on afterwards too. But there’s also room in the book for discerning accounts of more recent railway architecture. And it’s not all grim system-built tat, even in the 1960s. Manchester’s Oxford Road, Harlow Town, Barking, and Chichester all come in for praise. And more recently there are new stations as well as the much-lauded recent work at Kings Cross and St Pancras to feel good about.

So there’s a lot to admire here – accounts of unregarded buildings and little known architects, a broad overview of station architecture, and a sense that conservation work, railway preservation groups, creative reuse, and even the occasional recent new build give cause for optimism. The English Railway Station earns its place on the end of the railway shelf, next to Nock and Biddle.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mind your planguage


Jones the Planner (Adrian Jones & Chris Matthews), Towns in Britain
Published by Five Leaves Publications


Jones the Planner is one of the best blogs about building, planning, and the state of towns in Britain. I’ve been enjoying its thoughtful and well informed perambulations of towns for some years now, and admiring the way it gets the essence of a place. I remember, having followed the blog around Nottingham and Northampton, and read what it had to say about the great cities of Scotland and South Wales, that I began to hope they’d tackle some of my favourites. It was not too long before Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews visited Lincoln, to the sound of cheering from this quarter at least. Other favourites such as Bristol and Exeter followed. Now Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews have turned their extended perambulations into a book, making this reader at least, very pleased indeed.

The portraits of cities in this book are lively, sometimes witty, and the fruit of actual visits. They are informed by an experienced planner’s eye, but don’t degenerate into jargon: most of the time, they watch their planguage. The result is first of all a collection of very readable portraits. Coventry, for example, is seen as underrated, and Jones helps us to understand the virtues of its postwar planning (albeit compromised by later changes), as well as pointing out the striking buildings (the circular market building and Godiva Restaurant), the outstanding murals, and the greatness of the cathedral. I think the book is spot on about the way in which Spence’s design complements the ruins of the medieval cathedral. The virtues of Leicester (Clarendon Park, ‘Jacobean deco’ factories: hoorah!) are highlighted without denying the ‘silly show-off attention-seeking shininess’ of much of the city’s recent architecture. Glasgow is a fine city – one of our very greatest: true – its ‘American’ planning and scale, its staggering early iron-framed buildings, and its brooding tenements are magnificent. But Jones does not lose sight of the city’s problems, from the poor traffic planning to the lacklustre new transport museum; nor does he fight shy of suggesting solutions – he is Jones the Planner after all.

The urban parade continues via Cardiff (some terrific aspects but Cardiff Bay is poor and there is some depressing gated development by the Taff); Bristol (a great city that could do even better); and Southampton (some impressive assets like the old walls and the water, but the city needs to capitalise on them, not just give in to development). The smaller cities are given their due too: Exeter has a lot going for it, Lincoln has done much that is right.

There are several chapters on London. The approach to the capital is via various routes – the importance, and depletion, of the public realm, the vitality of traditional vibrant streetscapes, housing (flats in the Elephant advertised in the Gulf States while hardly any social housing is being built to replace what has been taken away from the area), contrasts of scale (city squares v the Shard), and so on.

Any book on towns has to work on both macro and micro scales, adumbrating the overall effect and specific details, and embracing both planning and architecture. Towns in Britain manages this, time and again. The book lays out clearly the phases of the development of a major city such as Birmingham while also zooming in on specific buildings. And although it’s often at pains to show the reasons why 1960s architecture is the way it is, to justify the ways of Brutalists to man as it were (Jones has time for John Madin’s threatened Central Library), it’s also open to more recent building when it works (Jones also respects the brand new library by Mecanoo).

This book is made up of pithy, arresting accounts of major towns, well illustrated with helpful photographs that are briefly and pointedly captioned. It avoids pat judgements about ‘crap towns’ or ‘concrete monstrosities’, drawing attention to how places actually work. It points to the virtues of planning, and the dangers of laissez-faire development (while also acknowledging that freedom to develop was one of the things that made Victorian cities great). The essays are appreciative of the good aspects (especially of underrated places), sharply critical of the bad, and, above all, alert to the specific character of each place. And this is the point: city authorities need to be sensitive to local character and build on it, and to resist the temptation to bow to the fat cheques and shiny facades of rampant capitalism on the one hand, or to the regurgitated nostrums and generalized principles of big-shot master planners on the other. Jones the Planner, in revealing so much about our towns’ positive qualities and their importance, makes it clear why this is vital.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Book of revelations

The next in my series of reviews is of a 2013 book that I didn't get around to reviewing last year. It covers an aspect of English buildings that's often overlooked...

Alan Powers (ed), British Murals and Decorative Painting 1920–1960
Published by Sansom & Company


Murals are among the largest of paintings, but, attached to the walls of country houses, schools, little known chapels, even ocean liners, they are also some of the least well known. This book showcases some of the most interesting British murals from a period that saw a revival in the art of decorative painting. It is a revelation.

The book begins with an extended essay by Alan Powers on the art of mural painting between 1920 and 1960, showing how various factors – the way fine art was taught, the importance of scholarships at the British School at Rome prize, the existence of enthusiastic patrons – came together with a generation of highly talented artists to produce many remarkable works. Powers also introduces and discusses a wide variety of mural artists, from Duncan Grant to Gordon Cullen, who deserve our attention. And in extending the common idea of what constituted British art in the early to mid-20th century he sets the stage for what follows: a group of 15 shorter essays by different art historians on key artists and decorative schemes. These too are fascinating and include artists who will be familiar to readers of this blog and others who will be only faintly remembered names, if that.

They include: Winifred Knights, whose mural The Deluge features a highly dynamic composition of running figures; Colin Gill, whose Allegro, a kind of sun-soaked Italian fête champetre, features his beloved Winifred Knights; and Thomas Monnington, who was married to Knights, and whose Allegory, compelling but somewhat mysterious, is in sharp contrast to his later, little known abstract works. Then there are: Mary Adshead, whose An English Holiday sequence was commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook, who then rejected it sight unseen because he was concerned about its light-hearted portrayal of his friends; Edward Halliday, who was influenced in his decorative work by Greek myth, but who later was better known as a portrait artist; Frank Brangwyn, with his monochromatic murals for the Rockefeller Center, New York City; and John Armstrong, who could do a kind of advanced Art Deco, as in his work for the London South Bank Telecinema, and something more fresh, individualistic, and pastoral, as in his work for the Royal Marsden Hospital.

An outstanding artist among these painters is Charles Mahoney, who reflected in his Morley College murals the classical turn in European art of the 1920s and 1930s, contrasting with the medieval, dreamlike quality off his outstanding Brockley school murals based on Aesop and similar fables, and with his murals for Campion Hall, Oxford, which work well with Lutyens' architecture and, to some, recall Piero della Francesca.

I was pleased too to read more about several of my own favourite artists of the period, including Edward Bawden (notably his works for the Festival of Britain and for ocean liners); Alan Sorrell (whose murals, interesting their its own right, also show a natural progression towards his more famous reconstructions of historical scenes); John Piper (the enormous Festival of Britain mural The Englishman's Home that was such a revelation at the V&A's British Design exhibition in 2012); and Barbara Jones (always interesting, always reinventing herself).

This all amounts to a rich visual feast, the more so because many of the murals, rarely if ever seen by the public, are reproduced in excellent colour photographs specially taken for the book. I am sure I will return both to the essays, and to these memorable images, again and again.

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The book's cover, above, shows a detail of Allegro by Colin Gill, 1921

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Not just white boxes

As I've done in previous years, I'm turning English Buildings into a book blog for ten days or so, as I review a few books in the run-up to Christmas. As usual, I've selected a handful of volumes that I feel enthusiastic about, in the hope that some of my readers might find something to give, or receive. 

Twentieth Century Society, 100 Buildings 100 Years
Published by Batsford


You get the idea: a span of a century (1914–2013) and one building per year, each described briefly and illustrated with photographs. The book was put together by the Twentieth Century Society and the buildings were selected by its supporters. Quite a few of the structures it includes would not exist without the campaigning work of the Society; one or two have, alas, been demolished. Together they make up an arresting selection of what’s most interesting, and sometimes provocative, about 20th-century architecture in Britain.

The book is not, though, intended to showcase ‘the best’ or to be ‘a representative selection’ of 20th-century buildings. It reflects the individual tastes of the selectors, who are well informed about 20th-century architecture but have varied preferences. And this is a good thing, since the architecture of the last one hundred years is the most diverse Britain has produced. It embraces the white boxes of 1920s modernism, Art Deco in its various forms, mid-century modernism, brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech: all the usual suspects. But more than this, it acknowledges the impact of picturesque, garden-city inspired housing, of the serious Gothic of Bristol’s Wills memorial Building with its great tower, of the century’s neoclassical buildings, and of one-offs (or two-offs) like the vast airship hangars at Cardington or Ernest George Trobridge’s eccentric sort-of-Tudoresque houses in Kingsbury.

Representing all this variety is worthwhile because we get a bigger (if maybe more confusing) picture of modern architecture than the one revelled in many textbooks. And this is important for another reason. Many people and groups campaign for specific types or styles of building – modern movement buildings, say, or Art Deco cinemas. And that’s fine. But the Twentieth-Century Society takes on all of them, from the most modest Prefab to Battersea Power Station. We need this breadth of vision and approach.

Many readers will find favourites here. I was thrilled to find one of my own, Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion, on the cover, and a rhapsody (by Piers Gough) in praise of London’s Barbican housing inside. But like me I suspect most readers will also make interesting new architectural acquaintances. I was pleased to be introduced to UMIST’s Renold Building in Manchester and Benton Park School in Leeds, and to be reminded of Farnley Hey, Peter Womersley’s celebrated 1955 house in West Yorkshire. Clearly I should spend more time in the North of England.

An introduction and a series of essays (on Inter-war architecture by Gavin Stamp, on the Post-war period by Elain Harwood, and on Postmodernism by Timothy Brittain-Catlin) punctuate the text and add useful context. The book makes up a stimulating, breezy introduction to the variety of British architecture, with good photographs. A good start for anyone new to the subject, and a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf for anyone who thinks they know all about it: buy a copy for yourself and one for a friend: Christmas is coming.

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There’s an accompanying exhibition, too, at the Royal Academy.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Leominster, Herefordshire


Toujours la politesse

As I left Leominster Priory after looking at the ducking stool that formed the subject of my previous post, the sun came out, warming the mid-18th century red brick of this lovely house on the approach road to the church. I'd admired this house before, and its polite architecture, but I'd not seen it without cars or vans parked in front. The lack of these, and the sun, seemed to demand a photograph.

I'm often taken by the quiet impressiveness of Georgian house fronts like this. None of the heavy effects of the earlier period, none of the filigree decoration or bow windows of the later Regency. Just good honest brickwork and the usual adornments – quoins, keystones, a doorcase with its own curved pediment, a larger, triangular pediment (with nice oil de boeuf window) at the top. As is so often the case, the window frames were renewed, with large panes, in the 19th century, but at least these changes don't destroy the overall proportions.

I don’t know who built this house or originally lived in it – someone of substance, clearly, commissioned the town's best Georgian house. For part of the 20th century it was, I believe, divided into flats, and I read in one place that during World War II troops were billeted there. It is now a care home. Its polite architecture has clearly proved both adaptable and resilient.